Billy Lo Syndrome

Bruce Lee subsists in pop culture via two indelible images. One is from Enter the Dragon, with Lee sporting multiple cuts on his face, abdomen, and chest, a snapshot of toughness and perseverance. The other is from Game of Death, where Lee dons a yellow track suit, fighting enemies floor-by-floor. For whatever reason, it stuck, and arguably, it’s Lee’s most lasting form in various media.

It’s likely Game of Death would have become Lee’s grandest epic. The fights he composed and performed before his passing make the demur Game of Death worth sitting through. Watching Lee against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, duel with nunchucks, and counter judo throws is masterful martial arts cinema.

Game of Death is crass enough to implant the idea that maybe, somewhere, Lee’s living his retirement

If nothing else, Game of Death made it clear movie producers, choreographers, and directors didn’t understand Bruce Lee. Fill-in action scenes go for immediacy. There’s no lingering dread or build-up. Stand-in Tae-jeong Kim, usually in shadow or sunglasses to hide his limited resemblance to Lee, kicks and shouts, but utterly misses the personality.

Without any ironic, self-observant humor, the production shamelessly pushed forward after Lee’s death. The result is a movie about movies, where mobsters run the industry, Game of Death oblivious to any moral lapses between the finished film and those crooks. Shameless images grab from Lee’s actual funeral, and outright embarrassingly, plant cardboard cutouts in place of Kim’s face.

Given Lee’s success in the ‘70s, no wonder film studios wanted more martial arts. Game of Death attempts to mythologize Lee like Elvis, suggesting his death was a ruse, undoubtedly pinging conspiracy theorists’ radars. In reality, it’s a way to script Kim’s covered face for some 10 minutes via surgical wrappings after a bullet deforms his cheek. Game of Death is crass enough to implant the idea that maybe, somewhere, Lee’s living his retirement.

There is a catch. If Game of Death were never made, the completed footage might still be sitting in a rotting vault, those impressive fights lost to time. Partly, Game of Death is a rescue operation, saving quarterly reports from dipping into the negative. And, without ever knowing so, it became a way to keep Lee alive, someone so popular, beloved, and celebrated, that even after death, he kept fighting. Not Bruce Le or Bruce Li; the real Bruce. The only Bruce, in a tracksuit, swinging weapons and kicks in a send off the master never knew he was making.

Video

Time created an unavoidable mismatch between Lee’s original footage and the new; general and sloppy inconsistencies exist as part of the print anyway. Fluctuations in resolution and detail happen regularly. At best, Game of Death looks clear, certainly well preserved. Minimal grain gives the encode little challenge. But a handful of shots indicate any egregious processing.

Natural color adds a slight gloss. Hong Kong locales bring bright signage to life. Flesh tones accurately perform at all times. Elevated primaries excel too, rich and bold without overstepping their organic limits.

An overall dark aesthetic challenges black levels. While not always running at their deepest grade, they do well in maintaining depth. Most shadows hit their marks, and when allowed, contrast brightens to do its part.

Audio

In addition to the original English, there’s another option for the Japanese theatrical release English dub. Either way, Game of Death sounds fine. There’s nothing inherently wrong other than standard aging. Scoring puts pressure on the low-end, earning a light response for the effort.

Dialog renders sharply, without any bother from static or grit.

Extras

Mike Leeder adds another commentary to this set, and there’s no one better to handle it. Matthew Polly speaks for seven minutes on Game of Death in a visual essay. Actor Robert Wall chats for 28-minutes about the film and his involvement. A new cut compromised of the original footage runs 34-minutes, complete with remixed audio and new dialog. Bloopers, outtakes, and other cut footage fills an entire sub-menu. On a bonus disc resides Game of Death II, in SD only.

Game of Death
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras
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Movie

Game of Death’s crass, exploitative existence still gave movie and martial arts audiences an iconic Bruce Lee performance.

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The 15 unaltered images below represent the Blu-ray. For an additional 33 Game of Death screenshots, early access to all screens (plus the 120,000+ already in our library), 100 exclusive 4K UHD reviews, and more, subscribe on Patreon.